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Give Us A Break!

Advocating for workers’ rights is not a new topic—but it would be nice to think that Virginia is moving forwards instead of backwards. The living wage movements at William & Mary and the University of Virginia are great examples of workers and the community fighting together for better pay and benefits. However, there are some rights that seem so basic that most people take for granted as being the law. In actuality, very few rights are protected for workers on the job. For some Virginians, even the basic right to take a paid break is denied to them. If you are a worker in Virginia over the age of 16, no employer has to give you a paid break or an unpaid meal period...
The Problem:

Under Virginia’s Labor and Employment law, employers are not required to provide rest or meal periods for employees over the age of 16. This law can apply to any worker in the Commonwealth. Employers have the discretion to determine whether an employee can pause work for restroom breaks, meals, or brief physical respite. The right to take a break should be guaranteed to all employees.

In the United States, between 1979 and 1993, the number of employees who do not receive paid rest periods increased, up to 47%.

The human toll is real:

Joan, a 58 year old divorced mother and educator works part time at a craft store to make ends meet. She is often forced to take her one unpaid meal break after working only two or three hours of her 8 hour shift. Joan is on her feet dispensing sewing expertise, lifting heavy rolls of fabric and cashiering, for up to 5½ hours without rest. Resigned and tired, she says that it’s bad, “but there’s nothing we can do about it.?

The Solution:

Modernize Labor and Employment Law by requiring employers to offer paid rest periods and unpaid meal periods for each worker in the Commonwealth.

Reasons to Support Rest and Meal Periods:
* Rest and meal periods increase efficiency of workers. The physical and psychological fatigue of work without break generally creates a slow down in productivity. A short rest period or meal period, with the added benefit of refueling with calories, reinvigorates employees and efficiency is therefore increased. Business interests also see the merit in breaks for efficiency: “while it certainly cannot be denied that breaks are most welcome and relaxing to an employee… these breaks were primarily provided to increase the workers’ efficiency.?

* Rest and meal periods decrease work place injury. Studies show that frequent breaks decrease the risk of physical injury in occupations as varied as manufacturing, service and retail jobs, such as cashiering, and computer terminal work.

* Rest and meal periods increase worker satisfaction. Allowing respites from a long work day adds humanization to an occupation that can feel alienating and dehumanizing. Recognizing a person’s need to take a mental and physical break is especially meaningful when a worker’s worth is often measured as outputs or units completed.

Reasons to Oppose Rest and Meal Periods:
* Rest and meal periods decrease productivity. In actuality, the U.S. Department of Labor states that rest and meal periods “promote the efficiency of the employee.? Also, California, a state that guarantees rest and meal breaks, allows employers to stagger rest periods so that the regular flow of work is not interrupted, and in jobs requiring automation, the continuity is not disrupted.

* Rest and meal periods are costly to the employer. Employers look at the bottom line—profit. Higher productivity increases profit, but fatigue and stress related injuries decreases profit. Rest periods increase productivity by allowing employees to recharge and refocus. Safety experts see rest periods as a useful tool in preventing injury on the job.


Reform Virginia’s Labor Laws:
Implement a minimum standard
for employers to uphold

The right to pause work for a short coffee break, or to use the restroom is a luxury taken for granted by many professionals. However, for a growing population, these rights are non-existent. Rest and meal periods should not be a luxury for the professional class alone. Many employers do recognize the right and the need for rest and meal periods, but action is needed to ensure that this right is extended to all workers in Virginia.

Action Needed:
* Require employers to offer a paid 10 minute rest period for every four hours worked; as practical, in the middle of each work period.
* Require employers to offer unpaid 30 minute meal periods for any shift over 6 hours, in which the worker is completely relieved of his or her duties; the meal should occur between the 3rd and 5th hour of work of an 8 hour shift.

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